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George Steinbrenner: Baseball's 'Boss' leaves behind a legend

By Ashley Fantz, CNN

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Steinbrenner: Psyche of an icon
  • Yankees owner George Steinbrenner turned 80 on July 4 and attended a ball game
  • At that game, he told star pitcher Andy Pettitte that the team should win more
  • Steinbrenner was famous for tirades and toughness, but also had a tender side, friends say
  • He died Tuesday of a massive heart attack in Tampa, Florida

(CNN) -- Demanding, vilified, legendary. "The Boss" of baseball, George Steinbrenner, turned 80 on the Fourth of July.

At Yankee Stadium, well-wishes flashed on the JumboTron: "Happy 80th!"

It brought scattered applause. The game resumed.

Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, a five-time champion and legend in his own right, recalled a time when he went to check on Steinbrenner during an earlier exhibition game in Tampa, The New York Times reported. The two talked about how the Yankees were doing. The Boss was simple and direct, as usual.

Steinbrenner, the owner of seven World Series trophies and 11 pennants, told Pettitte that the Yankees needed to step it up. They needed to win more games.

The pitcher recounted to The Times:

"We were losing 1-0 or 2-0, and he said, 'We need to score some runs,'" Pettitte said. "So I said, 'Well, it's early, we might score some runs.'

"He said, 'We'd better.' To me, that summed it up right there. OK, it's him."

Steinbrenner died Tuesday of a massive heart attack in Tampa, his adopted hometown. Steinbrenner remembered

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George Steinbrenner is regarded as the man who restored the Yankees to greatness, a larger-than-life embodiment of America's pastime.

He became a pop culture icon, lampooning himself in commercials and on "Seinfeld," and he could be a real softie, helping people he didn't even know with his personal fortune.

"Not a lot of people know this, but he would hear of a story, read about someone in the newspaper who was having a hard time, and he would find them and help them, without getting any credit," said Rick Cerrone, the former public relations director of the Yankees. "He picked up random people's medical bills. He was a very magnanimous, generous person."

Steinbrenner was also known as a tough-as-hell boss to work for, a guy who eviscerated and insulted his players. He seemed to delight in raising his voice at his employees, players and enemies alike.

"George is the most charming guy in the world, a real Mr. Nice," said Campbell W. Elliott, former president of American Ship Building Company, which Steinbrenner owned. "But to work for him? George's attitude is that they're damn lucky to have a job -- and if they don't like the way he treats them, they can just get the hell out."

Steinbrenner was raised in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb by shipping company owner Henry Steinbrenner and housewife Rita Steinbrenner.

He ran track in high school.

"He did say that his dad was the type of person when Mr. Steinbrenner ran five races and won four, his dad would talk about the one he lost," said Cerrone. "But he didn't say that in a negative way, like a 'woe is me' type of thing. He talked about how the man shaped him, that he really pushed him."

Steinbrenner went to a military academy, then to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he edited the sports section of the campus newspaper. He made sports his career with his first pro-franchise investment in the short-lived professional basketball team, the Cleveland Pipers.

He bought the Yankees in 1973 for $10 million. "At that time, the Yankees were a depressed, irrelevant franchise, mediocre at best," said Cerrone. "The attendance was terrible. They had completely been dwarfed by the Mets."

The Yankees are now estimated to be worth $1.6 billion.

George is ... Mr. Nice. But to work for him? If they don't like the way he treats them ... they can just get the hell out.
--Campbell W. Elliott

Paving the way for free agency, and redefining big-bucks baseball, in 1974 Steinbrenner paid $3.75 million to hire pitcher Catfish Hunter to a five-year contract. And in 1977, he shelled out a huge sum to get Reggie Jackson, previously a star of the Oakland Athletics and the Baltimore Orioles. Later that year, the Yankees beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series and brought a championship to New York. Some people criticized Steinbrenner for paying for that win, and the others that followed.

In 2004, the Yankees' payroll stood at $187.9 million -- the highest in Major League Baseball.

"That never bothered him," said Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. "That question always came up with him [but Steinbrenner would say] We make the money and funnel it right back to the team."

Steinbrenner used to get a "real kick" out of regular fans who would recognize him on the street and thank him for spending so much money so their beloved team could win, said Verducci.

To the Yankees' arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, and to every other team in baseball, Steinbrenner was feared and respected. His temper and impatience were assets, said Rob Bradford, the author of "Chasing Steinbrenner."

"The Red Sox always had to worry about what Steinbrenner was going to do because no matter what, he was going to outspend, out-trade, out-fire and out-tongue-lash anybody," said Bradford. "He kept his opponents on their toes. To a lot of people he was over the top. But you can't argue with the results."

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When you become his manager, it's like your IQ drops by 50 percent. All of a sudden you don't know anything.
--Gene "Stick" Michael

Under Steinbrenner, the Yankees won 11 American League pennants in addition to seven world championships.

The Yankees won their second world title under Steinbrenner in 1978, a victory that shared headlines with a sordid tale of infighting as Steinbrenner and his manager, Billy Martin, exchanged nasty insults. Steinbrenner would hire and fire Martin several times. Martin was just one of several people Steinbrenner impetuously fired over the years, and yet they still seemed to like him.

"In every other job I've had with him, he seemed to respect my opinion to some degree," Gene "Stick" Michael told Sports Illustrated. Michael, who was at one point fired by Steinbrenner, was at various times a player, a scout, general manager and field manager. "But when you become his manager, it's like your IQ drops by 50 percent. All of a sudden you don't know anything."

In 1981, when the Yankees returned to the World Series, it didn't go well and the team lost. After game five, Steinbrenner called a late-night press conference. He held up a bandaged arm and told reporters he had beat up two Dodgers fans in an elevator defending the honor of his team.

Steinbrenner made his PR team issue a public apology to the residents of New York City for losing the series.

On Tuesday, flags at New York City Hall were lowered in tribute to Steinbrenner.

"This is a sad day not only for Yankee fans, but for our entire city, as few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

In the latter years of his life, Steinbrenner was reportedly mellowing and in poor health. News of him fainting in 2006 sparked media attention. Steinbrenner insisted that he was fine, and steered talk back to his team.

"He probably did lighten up a little bit in the last years," said Cerrone. "What man is the same in their 40s as they are in their 70s?

"His heart might have been gentler, but he was still The Boss. He's always gonna be The Boss."